Photo: Albert Kok
Written by Colin Ruggiero, Filmmaker & Photographer
Shark Week is upon us, those seven days every year when the Discovery Channel uses dubious tactics and a misunderstood predator to boost its ratings. In light of that, I thought I’d reflect briefly on fear of sharks and a recent lesson I’ve learned about conservation in the age of soundbites and sensational media.
Not long ago I got news that a large tiger shark had been killed on a small island in the Bahamas where I’ve spent a lot of time. Many of the locals there have a general policy of killing any potentially dangerous sharks that they find near the island in shallow water. They go out with a bang stick, which is a long pole spear with a high-powered firearm round at the tip, kill them and drag them back to the public beach. I’d witnessed this a number of times in the past and, while both bang sticks and killing sharks are illegal in the Bahamas, these laws are never enforced. I have a Facebook page for a film that I made in the Bahamas and I decided to post about the incident there to try to raise some awareness about the problem.
As you would expect, things quickly got pretty heated. I felt comfortable with bringing the incident into the public spotlight but here’s the thing about social media: It’s a good place to call attention to something but not a good place to have meaningful discourse about complex issues.
The post got a lot of attention and lots of people who saw pictures of dead sharks, weighed-in, fueled by emotion but very little understanding of the issue. And this can be a real problem with using social media to advance wildlife conservation issues. Our modern lives have left most of us disconnected from the natural world in any meaningful way and with a poor understanding of wildlife in general and the dynamics that affect them. We react emotionally to certain things, however, and it’s very easy to show pictures of dead animals or tell a small part of the story and rally the masses to outrage. The resulting comment thread seldom resembles a useful or productive discussion.
Many of the locals were upset by the judgements being made about them by people with no knowledge or awareness of their way of life. People, they said, should mind their own business. I’m very sympathetic to that argument and there is incredible value in the idea of local sensibilities. But increasingly, local is being trampled by global. This is a tremendous loss but it’s the reality we currently face living on a planet with more and more people and fewer resources. Issues like this are increasingly everyone’s business, and this is especially so where the ocean is concerned. More on that in a minute.
There was really just one main argument made in defense of killing the shark: That it was a large, potentially dangerous shark, swimming close to the beach where people swim and children play and that, whatever value that shark had to the ocean ecosystem, it wasn’t worth the risk. Pretending that I haven’t seen other sharks killed far from the beach where they posed little threat, the argument seems to be a fair one and one that I’m sure accurately reflects many people’s thinking. But the argument underestimates both the importance of the shark and the implications of killing it, while also overestimating the risk to people.
Since 1900 there has not been a single recorded shark fatality in the island chain where this shark was killed. There have only been three incidents total, and one of these was a guy who tried to hand feed a domesticated nurse shark at the dock – yes, that incident was recorded as an attack. The Bahamas get a lot of tourism, including spear fishing, and it’s frankly shocking that in the last 100+ years there haven’t been more shark/people encounters that ended in injury. The only explanation is that sharks actively avoid encounters with people. In all of the Bahamas combined, which is a huge section of some of the sharkiest waters in the Atlantic, seven people have been killed by sharks since the year 1860. I’ll let you compare that with other causes of death – think chairs, coconuts, pencils, anything.
Fisheries, reefs and ocean ecosystems are collapsing. Sharks are a critical part of ocean health. They’ve been targeted due to fear and the value of their fins and, being at the top of the food chain, they are easily affected by damage further down the chain. The best estimates indicate that 90 percent of all sharks are now gone. Locals killing the occasional shark didn’t do that, but ocean life doesn’t observe our political boundaries, and the damage done in one area can have drastic impacts on areas far away. One local population thinks that its actions are insignificant but there are countless populations just like them doing the same thing. And in an ocean already severely compromised by industrialized, large-scale fishing, the implications of local actions are real.
Sometimes locals, in any area, need to defer to the information that scientists and biologists have about their role in a larger issue. One hundred years ago, maybe it wouldn’t have been that big of a deal to kill a shark that got too close. We can’t afford to do that now, even if it means modifying our behavior to accommodate them.
I believe the case against killing sharks is clear and compelling and I don’t mind using Facebook as a soapbox to shout about it. But it’s clear now that the actions of local populations are being monitored and regulated by a global population that is more connected than ever. This can be really powerful. But holding individuals or groups of people up to public judgement by the often uninformed masses can also be divisive and do more harm than good.
One way to avoid this pitfall and use social media to maximum benefit would be by using it to connect people to deeper sources of information. This is contrary to most social media advice about what to post to reach people who are short on time and attention span. But lots of news aggregator sites are successfully getting people to click-through to articles and posts with more nuanced explanations of an issue than will fit on a timeline. Social media posts should be like a flickering neon sign that invites you to come inside and find out more, rather than shout something out the window as you drive by. For complex issues, we might want to treat social media more like the inventory of resources it is rather than as a resource itself. And hopefully Discovery Channel will decide to pepper Shark Week with a little bit of responsible, fact-based programming.
This article was originally published at Mission Blue on June 30, 2016.